Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) is back in Japan, and if Boston Red Sox brass were slipped a dose of truth serum, they'd love for him never to return. It's one thing to deal with a headache. It's another to pay $103 million for it.
With his right elbow pained by a sprained ulnar collateral ligament – the one that when damaged badly enough results in Tommy John surgery, and may yet do so for him – Daisuke sits on the disabled list for the fifth time in two seasons. Among his shoulder, elbow and forearm, he's faced problems with every part of his arm. The only thing left is his hand, and as many times as he's raised a figurative middle finger at the organization, it's a shock he hasn't hurt that, too.
Matsuzaka's tack with the Red Sox, according to sources inside and outside the organization, has been simple: Ignore what they want and do what he wants. While manager Terry Francona continues to stick up for Matsuzaka publicly – "Dice has been really good about this," he said – the Red Sox's regret is tempered only by the expiration date of his deal drawing nearer by the day.
When Boston dropped a $51.1 million bid for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka, then in late 2006 handed him a six-year, $52 million contract, they expected an ace. They got an ACE: Another Chubby Easterner, Hideki Irabu 2.0, a disappointment, a waste of money.
Just how big of one is the question with Daisuke. He arrived at his first spring training sporting a healthy gut, and his stark refusal to get, let alone stay, in shape has colored his tenure with Boston. The Red Sox's front office wouldn't be nearly as concerned with Matsuzaka's physique if his arm weren't horrifically abused during his time in Japan. Matsuzaka believes his throwing program in Japan was just fine and Boston has been too restrictive, and that conflict set the backdrop for the rest of their relationship.
Boston won a World Series in Matsuzaka's first season. In his second year, flashes of a frontline starter emerged: an 18-3 record with a 2.90 ERA and fourth-place finish in AL Cy Young voting. Still, the raw numbers didn't explain the form or fashion in which Matsuzaka recorded his outs.
In the time B.D. – Before Daisuke – Steve Trachsel turned his sun-dial style of pitching into a signature. He was boring. He was slow. He embraced it, and he could, because he was Steve Trachsel, and it helped him survive with a fastball that, by the end of his career, sat at 85 mph. Now that we're in A.D., it's apparent that Trachsel held the entertainment value of Pedro Martinez(notes) and Tim Lincecum(notes) compared to Matsuzaka. For those who believe in reincarnation, Daisuke undoubtedly was a mouse in previous life; he nibbles with such vigor and conviction with his pitches that games turn into tedious affairs.
During his standout 2008, he led the AL in walks and threw the second most pitches per plate appearance. Never did he learn to harness his stuff, a six-pitch array that piqued the mystery surrounding him in the first place.
Daisuke had dominated in Japan, and not only did the Red Sox want his arm to lead their rotation, they coveted his marketing muscle in Japan's giant, baseball-thirsty economy. In hindsight, Boston could've reached a Japanese audience any number of ways without devoting nine figures to one player's acquisition. Such was the hype about Matsuzaka.
Japan tends to breed and foster it. Hideo Nomo was excellent for two years and mediocre for another decade. Kaz Ishii stunk. Irabu was worse. Kei Igawa, signed by the New York Yankees for a $26 million posting fee and $20 million contract as a consolation prize after missing out on Matsuzaka, might be the biggest disaster in baseball history. He pitched 71 2/3 innings and ended up with, appropriate enough, a 6.66 ERA before getting sent to Triple-A, where he spent the last 3½ years before getting demoted to Double-A this season.
No, Matsuzaka isn't an Igawa mess. He is more like Barry Zito(notes), actually, a staggeringly large deal given to a pitcher that simply didn't deserve it. For the first four seasons of a seven-year, $126 million deal, San Francisco has gotten 768 innings of nearly league-average pitching. There is some value to that. Not $18 million a year worth. Between those innings and his willingness to go along with the Giants – Zito was booted from the rotation before last postseason and did not register a complaint – it's enough to have kept him employed.
Zito is expected to return from a sprained foot sometime in June. Matsuzaka's status remains unclear. Francona said he went to Japan to take care of a personal matter, though the Boston Herald reported Matsuzaka planned to seek help in healing from traditional Japanese medicine. When he returns, Matsuzaka will head to Los Angeles for an examination and second opinion from Dr. Lewis Yocum, the surgeon who worked on Dustin Pedroia's(notes) foot, Jacoby Ellsbury's(notes) ribs and, yes, Stephen Strasburg's(notes) elbow ligament.
Should he need Tommy John, Matsuzaka likely never would wear a Red Sox uniform again. Between the one-year recovery and rehabilitation, and the prospect of a rusty pitcher contributing innings in important 2012 pennant-run games, the Red Sox wouldn't rush him back.
If Matsuzaka can avoid Tommy John, it's more of the same. As much as their lack of pitching depth frightens them, the Red Sox also grew frustrated at Matsuzaka giving up seven runs in one start and twirling 15 innings of two-hit, shutout ball in his next pair. That Daisuke whets Boston's appetite enough where it deals, begrudgingly, with his diva behavior. One source called him "stubborn," another "pigheaded" and one more, in the most chilling assessment, "lazy." That source added: "They're tired of his act."
For now, they get a reprieve. Daisuke is out of sight. Out of mind, though? Not yet. Not close. A $103 million migraine doesn't go away that easy.